Revisiting Cores from the Impact that Killed the Dinosaurs
I read an update recently to a story we wrote about in summer 2016 (“Drilling for Answers to Dinosaur Demise,” July 2016). Earlier that year, the International Ocean Discovery Program’s Expedition 364 set out with a lofty goal: get insights into the Chicxulub impact crater. What’s that? Let me catch you up.
Around 66 million years ago, a meteor roughly the size of Mount Everest struck near the tip of what we now call the Yucatan Peninsula. Literal hellfire and maybe some brimstone followed, and when the dust settled, about three-quarters of the life on Earth settled with it. This mass extinction ended the Cretaceous Period and, according to many experts who should know, the reign of the dinosaurs.
The scurrying little critters left over eventually grew big brains, started walking upright and learned to drill with big industrial equipment. That brings us back to 2016. A crew parked off the coast of Mexico not far from the town of Progresso drilled into the impact crater left behind — in particular, part of the crater called the peak ring. Major impacts toss a lot of debris from underground to above ground. That material forms the peak ring. Looking at this ring gives us a window into all that fire and brimstone in the minutes and hours after the blast.
Drillers pulled up hundreds of feet of core starting hundreds of feet below the ocean floor. After three years of careful analysis, scientists recently detailed some of their findings in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This is where I think it gets interesting.
Drillers understand that a foot of depth can mean thousands of years of built up soil. This one impact laid down about 425 feet of debris in one day. The day of the blast must have run the length of dozens of cores. Hundreds of feet of melt rock and suevite buried normal ocean floor material in a matter of hours. Regular carbonate deposits cap all of that as shallow-ocean life recovered in the weeks and years after. With that profound depth of deposited debris, scientists can look at how an event that happened millions of years ago unfolded in hour-by-hour detail.
You know what makes it all possible? Drilling.
It’s cool that scientists get to puzzle out the mysteries of the prehistoric past. But drillers got their tooling more than 4,300 feet into the ocean bed to put the puzzle pieces in the hands of those scientists. According to our 2016 story, the drillers had near 100-percent recovery — all while drilling from a cramped 100-foot-long-by-50-foot-wide platform with limited space for all that drill rod. Pretty impressive.
For many drillers, this sort of thing is all in a day’s work. Many of our readers crew remarkable jobs all over the world. Some of our more mobile readers could work in Peru one week and Croatia the next.
Whether advancing science, exploring for rare earth minerals or delivering water to remote areas, drillers get the job done. It is a trite saying in the industry that, if you cannot grow it you have to drill for it. The scientists who ran their fingers along those cores (using sterile gloves, of course) surely appreciate that. Their project and the insights they got studying those cores with powerful microscopes depend on the folks whose job it is to turn the right.
The fact that drillers got it done under tough conditions with great recovery rates is almost a given. They get the jobs done that allow everyone else, from scientists to farmers, to get their jobs done. It’s just what drillers do.
Stay safe out there, drillers.